This wonderfully perceptive memoir follows Matthew Gilbert’s transformation during his first year as a reluctant dog owner. A neurotic, death-obsessed, and socially uncomfortable television critic for the Boston Globe, Gilbert describes his evolution into a more open-hearted, playful person, thanks to his yellow lab, Toby, and the cast of characters who frequent the Amory Dog Park in Brookline, Massachusetts. Despite his initial efforts to distance himself, Gilbert not only becomes friends with the dog park freaks, he surrenders to becoming one himself.
While Off the Leash largely takes place in the dog park, its focus is primarily on human interactions and on Gilbert’s development as a dog owner: how his paternal instincts kick in when Toby is attacked by an aggressive dog; the awkwardness of seeing his sweet puppy being mounted by another dog for the first time; the politics of ball-sharing and picking up after your dog; coming to terms with the grim reality that he will probably outlive his beloved (canine) companion. It’s not until Gilbert embraces the playful recklessness of his dog that he’s ultimately able to open himself up to the messiness of human relationships.
The dog park breaks down social barriers by corralling a random circus of owners with whom one wouldn’t ordinarily come in contact. Gilbert takes care in describing the “streak of dried toothpaste” on one owner’s bottom lip, and how the same woman wears cotton pajama bottoms even during the dead of winter. Cell Phone Lady mentors counselors at the nearby halfway house during her lunch break, and Claude the House Painter recites Macbeth verbatim as her dog, Panda, romps around the park.
Mixed in with the oddball regulars are heartwrenchingly vulnerable characters who bring real weight to the mainly lighthearted volume, such as the burly, despondent construction worker going through a painful divorce who tears up when discussing the loyalty of his mutt, Mia. And then there’s Saul, the octogenarian with “spotty shaving skills” who continues to drive himself to and from the park for a few minutes of daily companionship and casual, rambling conversation—despite his declining eyesight and the fact that he doesn’t, in fact, have a dog. There is a collective sense of dread among the regulars when Saul disappears from Amory, and after some snooping, they learn that his driver’s license has been revoked because of a minor traffic accident.
Gilbert playfully describes characters in dog-like terms: A woman who pulls her car over to pet Toby looks like “a wheaten terrier with her dirty blond bangs and calm, freckly face,” and he describes himself as having a “big snout.” His years as a TV critic also leach out onto the page: He likens those who pass through the park once or twice to “guest stars, like on a sitcom.” Gilbert is also quick to create new terms to describe dog park behavior and even includes a tongue-in-cheek glossary at the conclusion. My favorite term is poop mime: “You do it after your dog poops, when others are watching you. ‘See,’ says your thought balloon as you very conspicuously hold your bag and bend over, moving like a silent-film star, ‘I’m a good citizen.’ ”
Gilbert gives as much credence to the rhythm of a sentence as to his word choice. And his bebop cadence feels fresh and relatable, even playful. There’s a wonderful description of how walking Toby as a puppy was like maneuvering a Hoover: “I sometimes felt as though I was leading a vacuum cleaner bumpity-bump down the sidewalk, and watching the on-comers choose their approach.” In describing his park pal Hayley’s desperate attempt to woo her uninterested crush—fellow park regular Drew—Gilbert employs the whimsical image of “a knight wearing metal gloves, trying to knit a dainty little mitten.”
Despite his occasionally poetic language, the subject matter grounds the book, and Gilbert is appealingly self-deprecating about his own inadequacies. In the chapter titled “Dookie,” he discusses dog feces as the great equalizer: “At Amory, I saw owners conversing daily—sometimes about big life decisions and philosophies—while holding bags of poop in their hands.” And dog owners will certainly appreciate his paranoia over the questionable porousness of poop bags and the subsequent abuse of hand sanitizer. Then he’ll swing us back around again and make an analogy between getting dog filth on your hands and interacting with anonymous strangers, and how the dog park breaks down those invisible barriers.
Sophie Flack, author of Bunheads, has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Ballet Review.